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Producer Ted Templeman Remembers Eddie Van Halen: ‘He Wasn’t Just a Shredder’

Templeman worked on Van Halen’s first six albums and formed an enduring friendship with the guitarist that lasted through the end of his life

Van Halen producer Ted Templeman pays tribute to Eddie Van Halen. "He was the last guy to think he was some kind of guitar god," he says.

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The first time that producer Ted Templeman saw Van Halen playing at the Starwood in West Hollywood one night in 1977, he burst out of the club’s doors to find the nearest payphone. He called Donn Landee, a recording engineer he worked closely with, and left several messages. “You’ve got to see this guy,” was all he could say, referring to the band’s flashy guitar player, Eddie Van Halen. At the time, Templeman was working at Warner Bros. and he had only one thought in his mind: “I had to make this deal.” He rounded up the head of the label, Mo Ostin, got him to the club the next night, and signed Van Halen immediately.

“They’d been turned down by everybody else,” Templeman remembers. “Gene Simmons had ’em and he took ’em back to New York, but they didn’t quite click, and it didn’t work out. So when I saw ’em, they didn’t have anything. They didn’t have a deal and they had no money. In fact, when we did the first sessions, Ed’s car door was wired shut with guitar wire, so it wouldn’t fly open.”

Templeman pushed the band into the studio, they cut the group’s diamond-selling self-titled debut, and he went on to helm the group’s next five albums. He was the producer behind the desk when they recorded “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Dance the Night Away,” “Unchained,” “Panama,” “Jump,” and so many more now-classic tunes. After David Lee Roth left the band, and Templeman stopped working with Van Halen, he remained close with Eddie. The two co-produced two albums by the band Private Life, and Templeman returned to the Van Halen fold to co-produce For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, after Sammy Hagar had joined. Right up until the guitarist’s death earlier this week, Templeman was in touch with Eddie.

“He told me the day that he’d just had his first steroid shot,” Templeman says of Van Halen’s cancer diagnosis. “He was OK, and within two weeks, he was in the hospital. From then on, we would talk — but then pretty soon he couldn’t talk. He would send me texts every day. ‘Oh, God. The chemo’s terrible.’ Then it got down to the point where he would just send little hearts at the bottom of a text. ‘I love you, Ted,’ and that stuff. One time, he texted, ‘Ted, you were the first one who ever believed in me.’ He was all medicated, too, but he was always great.”

Templeman sounds emotional while thinking about the suffering his friend went through, but then he remembers the many good times they shared and how Van Halen stayed the same, right up until the end. “I remember when he got his first new car,” Templeman says. “He came down and showed it to me, ‘You’ve got to see my new Porsche man.’ And almost a year ago, he comes over to show me his new, literally $300,000 car. He was still the same guy, and he was such a sweet guy. He’d call first: ‘Is it OK if I come at 3 instead of 4? I know it’s kind of early.’ ‘Yeah, sure.’ He was just a caring, really good friend.”

As Templeman reflects on the many years he spent with Van Halen and how they recorded some of rock’s most indelible hits, he finds it hard to separate work memories from those of a lifelong companion. “It’s more like your friend is gone than somebody you worked with,” he says.

What was Ed’s personality like when you first met him?
He was really, really shy. Once he got his own studio going, he got really creative. It was great to see all that happening.

How was he the first time you got him in the studio?
Here’s the big trick recording Ed: Just stick a mic in front of his amp because he already had a great sound, period. You didn’t have to do anything. Maybe a little EQ.

When we did that first demo, we laid down 30 songs in one day, because I wanted to hear everything. After doing that, I decided, “We’ve got to do a [proper] deal,” so we went right in the studio. After that, anytime the red light would go on, it made him a little nervous. He was a little uneasy. But he never made a mistake ever. He played perfectly. He almost always played his solos live in almost every song. He’d be playing the chords and he’d knock the solo right down and he’d go right through. We never overdubbed the solos. It was pretty amazing.

What music did he like?
He said his favorite band, the one that turned him on to rock music, was the Dave Clark Five. He said he and Al used to play “Glad All Over” all the time. And he liked Eric. When I was producing a Clapton album, he would call the studio and say, “Is Eric really there?” I’d go, “Yeah.” “Can I say hello to him?” “Yeah.” He’d get on the phone. I think he may have come down to meet him, but he might have been too bashful. He was shy.

Why did he have a hard time opening up to people?
He was very self-conscious, going back to when he was in school. He only spoke Dutch [at home when he was growing up], and he’d have trouble with English. So people gave him a rough time in school. Even when we were recording, I’d say, “Hi.” And he’d go, “Yeah.” He didn’t quite know “Hi” yet. But he could express himself once he started talking.

What song struck you most when you were making the demo?
I knew something was there when we did “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” I didn’t care if anybody bought it. I just knew it was one of the greatest things. I loved [David Lee Roth’s] lyrics and approach and singing. How many bands come out of the box with, “If you want it, you’ve got to bleed for it, baby”? That’s pretty nasty shit. But Ed played right into that.

After we did the demo, I saw them do a show at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and it was packed. They were doing “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” and every time they’d go, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” the kids were all putting their fists in the air. It was like, “Oh, shit.” The record hadn’t even come out yet. It was like the Cavern Club. Something was going on.

At what point in all of that did you have the “Eruption” moment, where you heard him and Alex and said, “We’ve got to record that”?
I walked out to use the restroom or get a coffee on the outside of Sunset Sound, and I heard him playing. It sounded like something you could only play on an organ, like a Bach fugue. I couldn’t believe it was coming from a guitar. I was like, “What is that?” He was like, “Oh, it’s nothing. Just something I warm up with before a show.” I yelled at Donn, “Roll tape!” And he said [flatly], “I’m already rolling.” He heard me talking to Ed.

It sounds like you had it easy.
All of us had a really good working relationship for four or five albums straight, because we all knew what to do. Dave was super inventive. Those lyrics he came up with in the beginning were like nothing out there, and Ed would pick up on the lyric and go somewhere with it. But basically there’d be no song if Ed hadn’t written the changes. It was a true songwriting team. You’ve got your Jagger and Richards or Rodgers and Hammerstein, whatever, but Ed would write the chords and Dave would write the lyrics. But the other thing would happen where Ed would bring the thing to life with his licks and his solos. He could rip your fucking head off with the solos.

One time, Dave said, “Why don’t we do this old Betty Everett song, ‘You’re No Good’?” I said, “Well, Linda [Ronstadt] cut that five years ago.” I thought about it all night and I told Ed and Dave, “You know that part, ‘I broke her heart gentle and true/I broke her heart over someone like you/I learned my lesson, you’re no good.’ This is nasty. Just make it like you want. Kill the fucker.” I said, “Make it, like, stabbing sounds and scream, Dave, like Psycho. Think Psycho.” And I swear, it came off that way. And Ed made that creepy little solo, like, with spiders in it. But my point is, he got it, bang, just like that. He didn’t miss a beat.

You cut six records with them, one year after another. How did they change as a band over that time?
They were so busy that they were exhausted because they were always on the road. We came to a point where Ed got mad at me. Dave really wanted to do a video because MTV was really big. They wanted to do “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and I told them I hate the fucking song. I didn’t like the original. But I cut it with them because they wanted to do it. They put it out and the record was a hit, so the company put pressure on them to put an album out there and make sales. So we went in and they didn’t have a lot of other songs written.

Ed had this one riff, and I said why don’t we make it into “Dancing in the Street.” I thought, “That would be wild. We’ll do this Motown thing, and it will be up, and it’s summertime.” And that caused a problem between me and Ed. Everybody liked it at the time, but a year later, somebody said, “You shouldn’t have done a cover tune.” Well, they did the first one with “Oh, Pretty Woman.” And then Ed didn’t want me to turn that into “Dancing in the Street.” But it was our only choice. We had to get a record out there. That caused a bit of a problem. I didn’t know; I didn’t think it was anything bad. But we got around it.

From the sound of it, though, I imagine these were fun records to make.
I was just listening to outtakes of recordings. And they’re laughing on one of the “Happy Trails.” Ed’s going, “Ted, don’t make us laugh.” So I’d get down on the floor so they couldn’t see me. And then Ed would go, “Where’s Ted? Don’t make us laugh, Ted.” It’s funny. You can hear all this stuff. And then they start to sing and then they’re laughing. Even then, we were having a great time.

Are there a lot of outtakes? Is there much left on the cutting-room floor?
No, they’re really, really rare. I have the very first demo we did, and we took two days. The last one is 40 songs, I think. Dave said, “That’s all we got, unless you want to hear ‘Happy Trails.’” And then they did “Happy Trails” a cappella. I still have the demo. That was it. I knew halfway through the demo the first day; I didn’t have any doubts. I just had to make sure I had a company that was behind it.

Ed sang a lot of backup vocals. Was he confident with his voice?
Yeah, he had a strong voice. People don’t realize that he could really sing. The most pop ditty we ever did was “Dance the Night Away.” We did a lot of these backgrounds that were me and Ed and Mike. We would do one time through with just Ed and Mike and on the second time with me doubling Ed and Mike on his second layer. I just had to bolster up Ed’s part, singing with him.

I just doubled it for sonic reasons and also Mike has a powerful voice. In fact, Ed used to call him “Cannonmouth” because he could sing, and you could hear him across the street. Mike is a sweetheart of a guy, too, and a great bass player. He was perfect all the time. He was a tremendous asset to that band. And Al, same thing. He was like a metronome. But yeah, those guys never made mistakes. When you’ve got a band that plays like that, it’s pretty goddamn easy.

At what point with Ed did you realize you were working with a genius?
Are you kidding? I knew that before I even went in the studio with him from watching him. The good thing is they were only a few blocks from me. We’d go in Dave’s basement to work up the songs, and I’d go, “Let’s try a different thing here,” and Ed would go, “How about this?” Boom, boom, boom.

But I think it really hit me when I walked by and he was playing “Eruption,” and he didn’t really think it was worth bothering with. I’m serious. He was like, “This? This is a little thing.”

I knew he was a guitar genius from the first rehearsal. Actually when I saw him play at the Starwood, I had never seen anything quite like that. I’ve worked with a lot of guitar players, too, and I’d never seen anything like that. There’s Art Tatum, there’s Charlie Parker, and then there’s this kid.

His genius extended beyond playing the instrument, too.
He had his own way of building his own rig. He had his foot pedals stuck together with Band-Aids and tape, and he had all these little tricks that he’d turn on and off. He’d build all his own stuff. He had his own way of making his amp sound more powerful to it than other ones by delivering more AC to it than you should.

But I knew from his playing. The tapping was pretty innovative. Nobody was doing that, those fucking hammer-on tapping things. When I saw that live, I thought, “Holy shit.” I’d never heard anything like that. And he’d do that in the middle of a solo. When we were doing the demo, he’d do a solo, and he’d just throw those things in there. I knew this guy is up there. I mean, he’s really a genius. And I had a good reference because I worked with guitarists in so many bands: Montrose, the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison. Ronnie Montrose was pretty goddamn good. So when I saw Ed, I thought, “He’s way above all that shit. This is something from another world.”

It’s well known that there was a lot of infighting in Van Halen. Did you have to referee a lot?
No. They never fought. It’s just that they didn’t click. I think it had to do with the early days because Dave used to boss them around. He’s like P.T. Barnum. “We’ve got to make a show out of this. Ed, you’ve got to dress this way. Al, do this.” And Ed used to tell me they’d be on the road, doing these stadiums, and if Al didn’t think Ed was moving around enough, he’d throw his drumstick and hit him in the back to remind him to keep moving; don’t just stand there and play.

But I got to know Ed before. Even on a personal level, when the guys didn’t want him to get married. He said, “Ted, I don’t know, what should I do?” I said, “Fuck those guys. They can’t tell you your life. You want to walk out right now? I’ll walk out with you.” That night I saw Valerie [Bertinelli, Ed’s first wife], and she said, “Oh, Ted. Thank you so much.” It was like the band was deciding whether he was getting married or not. And I was like, “It’s your life. Screw the band.” And he never forgot that either. Every birthday, I’d call him, or he’d call me, and that’s how we got to be good friends.

Did you ever disagree with Ed?
The only falling out we ever had was over “Jump,” because I didn’t — I don’t like it.

You still don’t like “Jump”?
It’s not one of my favorite things. It’s stupid because I produced it, but the keyboards just hit me as wrong. He would call me up in the middle of the night and say, “Ted, you’ve got to hear this. I’m gonna come and get you.” And he drove down in his Porsche to Century City and picked me up at three in the morning and drove me up there: “Listen to this.” And they had “Jump” down. Donn had worked on it. And it did work; it sounded great. And I said, “Yeah, OK.” The next morning, I said, “Dave, write some lyrics.” We sat in the back of his Mercury. He was writing this song, and I said, “That’s terrible.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, but they used to do this song about a guy that’s stuck up in a fire in a building and they’re going, “Jump, you fucker, jump into this blanket what we are holding.” I said, “That bothers me. Don’t say ‘jump.’ It sounds like you’re encouraging somebody to commit suicide.” He said, “Nah, nah. I got this thing nailed. It’s got a double entendre.” And he did. It meant, “Take a chance,” but it also meant he was gonna get this girl.

But I wasn’t wild about the keyboard trend. I was wrong because it was Number One, but I don’t even listen to it. To me, they were a heavy-metal fucking band that could do pop tunes; that’s what I liked about ’em. But that took it into another arena. It reminded me of those bands that play in arenas, and then the fucking thing ended up getting played at every arena before a game. But look, I was wrong.

What are your favorite Van Halen songs?
“Panama” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.”

Those are great guitar songs, too.
He hardly ever wrote a bad one.

In addition to “Eruption,” Eddie recorded a lot of cool instrumental stuff. There’s “Spanish Fly,” “Sunday Afternoon in the Park,” “Cathedral,” “Little Guitars.” Did he just come in with these things and go, “Check this out?”
He came up with “Spanish Fly” at my house. I had a Ramirez guitar that I bought in Spain. I play classical guitar. And he had it and was noodling on it in my living room. He was doing this tapping on an acoustic guitar, and I went, “OK.” So he ended up working out “Spanish Fly” at my house.

“Little Guitars,” I think, had something to do with the fact that Ed had a little guitar. It would blend in with his acoustic stuff. He could play flamenco guitar; he wouldn’t do it in the classic sense. He would do his tapping thing and make it amazing.

You were in touch with Ed right up until his death. That must have been hard.
Donn Landee and I would call him up when he was at the hospital at Cedars and try to make him laugh the best we could. Then it got to where they took him home and stuff I don’t want to talk about. The misery he was going through is really hard to relate to or think about, so I blocked that out. So my last best memory is when he came over and brought over his car to show me, just like when he got his first car that worked [laughs]. He had to drive down to Century City to show it to me. In fact, I live in this gated community and the [gate man] called me up and said, “There’s a guy down here who says he’s Eddie Van Halen. Should I tell him to go away?” I said, “No, no, no, that’s him. I swear to God.” [Laughs]

It’s nice to hear that someone people look at as a guitar god is so down to earth and humble.
Oh, yeah. If someone asked him a question backstage, he’d talk to them. I’ll tell you, he was the last guy to think he was some kind of guitar god. He hated that.

I wrote him a letter when his guitar was hanging at the Metropolitan and said, “Ed, I think you’re one of the best guitar players of all time and one of the three greatest musicians, aside from Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. But to do what you’ve just done, having your rig in the Met …” I said, “When I build my own car and win the Indy 500, you can send me a congratulations.” He loved those kinds of letters.

But he was so smart. I think he was more than just a guitar genius.

Is there any way you could measure his contribution to music?
I don’t know. It’s different than most people, because he was a triple threat. These other guitar guys like Allan Holdsworth, or Clapton, or somebody, they could come up with a good solo, but Ed wrote the songs. And then he’d come up with these great riffs and then he’d play the best solos that had ever been played.

He wasn’t just a shredder. He put a lot of stuff in there that nobody else could do. He would do things upside-down tapping, and wacky stuff, and he knew no one else could do some of those things, but that was more, “Here’s my latest thing.” He wasn’t showing off. All of his solos are melodic. That comes from a very musical thing, because he could play the piano before. And he could really play the piano. He would play a Steinway in the studio and it would sound like a concert pianist.

He knew his way around music. That’s why his solos and the songs that he and Dave wrote hold up. He wrote the chord changes as a songwriter. I think his impact is that people subconsciously hear melodic solos and people are attracted by that. You could listen to any solo by Deep Purple and they don’t have the same kinds of melodies in their solos. Jimmy Page was melodic, but somehow, it’s not the same. I think Ed’s impact is because he brought pop stuff into his music. Everybody likes that. No matter how much you like other kinds of music, if you hear a real good pop tune, it just gets you.

From Rolling Stone US